What the Governor General can teach us about a socially distanced world

TVO.org speaks with Julie Payette about self-isolation, the government’s response to COVID-19 — and life lessons from outer space
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Apr 20, 2020
Governor General Julie Payette on April 11 granted Royal Assent by written declaration to the new #COVID-19 Emergency Response Act No. 2. (Photo courtesy of Rideau Hall)

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Computer engineer. Space-travelling astronaut. Since 2017, the Governor General of Canada. Julie Payette’s career has long been a source of national interest, and lessons from it are today especially relevant. At a time when literacy in science and governance — as well as comfort in prolonged isolation — are top of mind, few are more qualified to offer advice to anxious Ontarians.

TVO.org caught up with Payette over Skype at her home in Quebec to discuss life in a distanced world, the government’s response to COVID-19, and what it’s like having both Buckingham Palace and the International Space Station on speed dial. 

TVO.org: I wanted to know how you’re doing. You’ve recently had a death in the family, which is difficult enough in normal times. 

Julie Payette: Oh, I’m doing great. I’m very blessed to have my 16-year-old home with me. In normal times, you know, we all work so much, we don’t spend enough time together. I call us one unit of two, because, right now, I don’t go anywhere without him. But, when it comes to death — and there are a lot of people who have gone through this — I feel very strongly the need to tell this story. Yesterday, I was speaking to some front-line workers at a hospital in Montreal. They told me that they feel really proud to go in every morning and put on their masks and gowns and to care for the patients. But they said they also now have to accompany them until the end, because there’s no one else. They’re the ones holding the hands at the end. We’re asking so much of them: they already have to be so courageous and so generous, and, on top of that, they have to be there for those last moments because they’re the only ones around. 

TVO.org: I also understand that you’ve been caring for your parents. What has been challenging about that, and what have you learned?

Payette: I’ve been caring for my parents as best I can, like everyone. I think what’s been challenging, and I think it’s challenging normally — I don’t think it’s abnormal at all; I think it’s very human — is that the first few weeks of confinement and social distancing went by pretty fast, you know? It’s already been over a month since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. But, now, things have settled down. Things are harder. Many people are financially preoccupied. People are losing their businesses. People are sick, losing their lives. This is settling in right now, and what do we do? Well, we get discouraged, right? It’s a human thing. “We’re done. When can we restart again? Am I going to be able to restart my business? The kids are at home — what about school?” Well, that’s when we need each other, to find the discipline and the courage. That’s the hardest part, to find the positive. We often say in the astronaut world, don’t focus on the things you can’t control. Focus on the things you can control. You control what’s happening at home, what you’re doing. Find ways that will please you, so that you can be there for others. And that’s our job. Every single one of us is part of the fight against the virus, and our job is to stay put. 

TVO.org: Speaking of which, where are you right now? 

Payette: I am in what I call my Cheyenne Mountain; it’s my home. I have my 16-year-old, so I have to be home. But I’m more equipped than a bunker, because I’m the technician — I’m a computer engineer by trade; it’s what I’ve done all my life. So I’m triple redundant in data, voice, and secure communication. I’m fully operational with lots of computers.

TVO.org: It’s hard to think of anyone more professionally prepared than you for this new way of living.

Payette: Well, it certainly is helpful. Also, I have my former colleagues, who are rallying. There are several astronauts out there — not giving advice, because we don’t tend to give advice — but just giving tips. There are ways to cope, to be isolated in a place where you can’t go out easily or shouldn’t go out. In the case of a spaceship, you can’t, period. But, also, it’s a time when you need to rely on technology to keep connected. And it is possible. You can keep connected to loved ones even if you can’t hug them physically. Eventually, you will. 

TVO.org: Have you spoken to your former colleagues? 

Payette: Not only have I been speaking to them, but, just last night, I got a communication from the International Space Station. The commander, who just got his commandership, is named Chris Cassidy, and I flew with him on my second mission. So I know him well, and I asked him a question. He just arrived on April 9, but up there, he met with a crew who had been there for nine months — which is an eternity. So I asked him, “Can you ask the crew if they’ve seen a difference, when they look back on Earth in the last month?” They’re the only ones who can tell us. And he replied last night saying, well, actually, there are less contrails from airplanes, but otherwise — for smog or pollution or lights — it’s pretty much the same. What it tells us is that we are completely interdependent, we humans and anything that lives on this planet. We live and share one planet, and we have no choice when it comes to climate or when it comes to a volcanic eruption or pandemics — these threats, these occurrences, do not know borders. We need to work together. It’s an imposition that comes to your mind when you’re up there. 

TVO.org: It is also a particularly hectic time in your current post. There are urgent government bills, for example. What is your work life like? 

Payette: It has been very fast-paced, certainly a lot faster than usual, because governments want to put measures in place. They want to support the economy. I’m very proud of what I’m seeing across the country at all levels of government. When this sort of thing happens, you still believe that democracy will play its role, and it does. Since the federal Parliament has been adjourned, it’s been recalled twice. And when it is recalled, it is a negotiation and discussion among all the parties. They all have a chance to say their piece in the House of Commons and in the Senate — mind you, with reduced numbers, but, still, there is democracy at work, and that reassures me. This is not the time to let in-fighting take hold. Thankfully, we’re Canada, and we’re good at getting along when the time comes. I don’t know about you, but I’m very proud of being Canadian. 

TVO.org: How have you managed the logistical challenges of doing your job in isolation? 

Payette: You mentioned my past. I’m very good at operational planning and execution. That’s what I’ve been trained for. So, as soon as the pandemic was declared, we decided to close down the Office of the Governor General, because we’re not an essential service. Except for our constitutional responsibilities — that part needs to continue. We have an agile workforce, we were prepared with the technology, so we sent everyone home immediately — also to leave residences open in case they were needed by public-health officers. So everyone works from home; I have no one with me. I’m the IT guy. I’m the operator. 

TVO.org: What about larger constitutional and governance questions? What are you learning about government in this time?

Payette: These questions are being discussed every day. In my role, I have this opportunity to see everything that is being done — from the research, to medical, to coordination, the actions that are being taken, and then just from real life. I’m out there once a week at the grocery store, like most people, to buy food for my parents. I also see it from the young person’s point of view, from my young man.

So all of this together is a very interesting position. When the time comes to reflect, I hope I can use the convening power of the Governor General to help us think about all this and think about what we want to do next in order to make sure that we’re even more prepared for the future. This will come again, unfortunately. We live in a very connected world. 

TVO.org: Everyone is speaking about science and the role of government. These are areas in which you’re an expert. Part of your role is communicating with the public, but you’re also careful about what you say. Has that been difficult? 

Payette: No, in fact, I have a chance to share. I use my science background to talk about what numbers mean, to explain why social distancing works and why it’s the only thing we have in our arsenal while we wait for a treatment — which is coming, I have trust in that — and eventually a vaccine. But that takes time. Now I’m working on polling my friends, space operators and astronauts everywhere — and they’re responding from all over the world — and I’m asking them: “What would you say to Canadians, from your experience, to help them cope with prolonged confinement?” So, I’m going to compile the answers and probably publish them this week. 

TVO.org: Are there lasting changes you see coming out of this period of uncertainty?

Payette: What I want to say is that I don’t have a crystal ball; I don’t know what’s going to happen after. But I know there will be an afterward. I hope that it will change some of the ways that we do things, for the better. Maybe we’ll be a bit more careful about the planet, because clearly we see that, if we change our habits, the planet is less polluted. Maybe we will change the way we move, the way we share essentials, and share this world. Maybe we will look at teleworking in a different light. Telemedicine is really important. There will be some positives out of this very difficult situation, I hope. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Julie Payette was speaking from her home in Ottawa. In fact, she was in Quebec. TVO.org regrets the error.​​​​​​​

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